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Montana starting quarterback Reese Phillips, center, is surrounded by teammates as he's taken off the field on a cart after his leg injury on Saturday during the Savannah State game.

MISSOULA — As Montana's athletic training staff assisted quarterback Reese Phillips up off the turf and into a golf cart, the entire Montana bench ran to the middle of the field to see off their senior leader.

Yes. The entire team. No one stayed on the bench. 

"Reese is one of my brothers," linebacker Josh Buss said. "This is the tightest knit group I've ever been on. I'm sure everyone else can say the same thing. It's not offense, defense, I have best friends on offense, best friends on defense. You see him go down, it hurts not just him, it hurts everyone. It makes everyone want to play for him."

Phillips went down in the second quarter, suffering a gruesome leg injury. It was later revealed by his mother on Twitter that he ruptured ligaments, broke a bone and went into surgery Saturday evening. 

"It was a little tough just seeing him out there laying down," quarterback Gresch Jensen said. "I know how hard he worked and how good of a person he is."

Jensen said Phillips was "pretty emotional" while sitting on the cart, but Buss said, through his emotion, Phillips gave the team a pretty clear message. 

"He was giving positive words to the whole team, 'Keep it going,'" Buss said. "You could tell that he was hurt and everything but he wasn't letting anyone know that. He wanted us to keep working."

The Grizzlies indeed kept working and scored six more touchdowns after Phillips was carted off the field, handily defeating the Savannah State Tigers 56-3.

Phillips got Montana off to a hot start, beginning the game 13 of 13 for 148 yards. He finished the day completing 13 of 14 and had minus-1 yard rushing. 

"It's tough to bounce back after you see one of your brothers go down," Buss said. "Going back out there, of course you want to fly around and hit (people) but he's always in your mind. He was in everyone's mind the whole game. You're thinking about him. We really wanted to go out there and bounce back as best as we could from that and just keep playing how we were playing before that happened. Play for him and play hard."

***

Defense dominates

Montana's defense fired on all cylinders against Savannah State.

The defensive unit as a whole came away with eight sacks, 15 tackles for loss, two interceptions, a blocked field goal, two pass breakups and three quarterback hurries. 

The Grizzlies also only allowed three points. 

"Got some points in our defense, it's different than last year. We're giving up some yards but we're gonna tighten the screws on you in the red zone and we're not giving up big plays," Montana coach Bob Stitt said. "Defensively, we came out and played very strong.

"I thought it was a great day of football."

Those interceptions came by the hands of Buss and cornerback Ryan McKinley. 

Buss' pick was on Savannah State's opening drive of the game when the Tigers were on the Montana 8-yard line. Buss ran the ball back for 21 yards.

McKinley's interception came in the second quarter.

On third-and-9, Savannah State quarterback T.J. Bell was back to pass on the Savannah State 37-yard line. McKinley was in the right place at the right time to make the grab and juked his way 53 yards back to the end zone to put Montana up 28-0.

"Even though it was there on the throw, still, if it wasn't for the D-Line getting pressure, if it wasn't for the backers getting their coverage, if it wasn't for the other two safeties and corners doing their job, then I wouldn't have made that play," McKinley said. 

Because of the high-production on defense, Buss said everyone on the defense was feeding off each other's plays. 

"The energy, everyone feeds off of it," Buss said. "One person makes a play, it's not about them, it's about the whole defense. When Randy (Rodriguez) got his first few sacks, everyone got excited for him. It's exciting for everyone. We feed off each other. ... We're not doing anything supernatural or anything like that. Just a good scheme, everyone's playing hard and it's good to see a lot of sacks."

***

Strahm's return

Senior linebacker Connor Strahm was back on the field after serving a two-game suspension. 

Strahm spent some time on the special teams unit and saw some time on defense.

He finished the day with three tackles, including one tackle for a loss of 1 yard. 

"It was great having him back," Buss said of Strahm. "He's one of my closest friends, so looking over and seeing him, nothing against Vika (Fa'atuiese), he's done great both games but it was nice having Connor back, especially with the seniority. He knows what he's doing. Scheme wise, you can trust him on what he's gonna do. It's nice. He definitely controls the defense. It's a different environment when he's out there."

He also made a crucial block on McKinley's pick 6.

"Connor made a heck of a block," McKinley said with a smile. "But all 10 of those guys, if it wasn't for them, I wouldn't have made that play."

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Amie Just covers Griz football for the Missoulian, among other things. Follow her on Twitter @Amie_Just or email her at Amie.Just@406mtsports.com.

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